The RBS privatisation is set to be Osborne's version of selling off the gold

There needs to be pressure on Osborne to state what success looks like in respect to the £37 billion investment the Government made in two banks, writes VMC Rosario.

A couple of tweets crossed my timeline this morning about a piece from the Guardian last month by former Labour MP Chris Mullin arguing that a readjustment to restore the balance in Gordon Brown reputation. In it he argues that Brown’s handling of the crisis was world leading:

It was the British government's decision, announced on 8 October 2008, to take a controlling interest in three major banks that prompted the Europeans, followed quickly by the Americans, to do likewise. Indeed, the Europeans made no secret of this. A few days after the British had acted Brown was invited to address the 15 eurozone heads of government.

How we view the decisive action Gordon and Alastair took on the banks will be coloured by the decisions the current Chancellor, George Osborne, takes on the publicly-held stakes in Lloyds TSB and RBS either later this month in his Budget statement (or later this year as the Spending Review and possible Winter Statement come into view).

It’s clear that some sort of decision is being put together in haste. Stories in media earlier this month were that Osborne was doing some clarification about how the Government could divest its stock: either if a share price of 73.6p has been reached for a given period of time or the Government has sold at least 33% of its shareholding at prices above 61p.

This week the Governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King, told the Banking Standards Commission that the Government should sell the banks:

The whole idea of a bank being 82 per cent-owned by the taxpayer, run at arms’ length from the Government, is a nonsense.

It cannot make any sense. I think it would be much better to accept that it should have been a temporary period of ownership only, to restructure the bank and put it back.

That has certainly piled pressure on Osborne to act. Now it seems Treasury ministers are planning to stage a "Tell Sid"-style cut price sell-off of shares to the public. That Policy Exchange are going to pronounce on the idea in a couple of weeks time gives it credence but it could potentially give Osborne a distracting announcement for an otherwise depressingly meagre Budget statement.

Osborne has form on doing something seemingly clever but ultimately foolish. Still, if he does go with a public sell-off he can take comfort in the cover the Liberal Democrat-leaning think tank Centre Forum will have given him in floating something similar but crucially different last year. Tim Montogomerie was picking up something similar even earlier.

Eye-catching ideas to one side there needs to be pressure on Osborne to state what success looks like in respect to the £37 billion investment the Government made in these two banks.

With banks "stabbing businesses in the back" in respect to lending, the banking reform bill still in draft and the banking standards commission still considering a wide range of issues relating the banks, playing politics with £37 billion looks like an awfully big risk.

This is especially true given just how Osborne has made considerable mileage out of bashing Gordon Brown for costing the taxpayer "£9 billion by selling the gold cheap".  If the now-Chancellor was keen for the taxpayer to pay attention to the bottom line then he should expect just as much scrutiny this time around.

Secondly, a public sell off which puts money in the hands of ordinary people is potentially something Labour should applaud, if a fair investment can actually be shown to reach ordinary people. Frankly if the chief executive of Lloyds TSB is going to make £1.4m out of any share sell-off, then it has got to be worth more that a token gesture for "Sid".  That’s especially important when saving the banks has overall cost every man, woman and child £20,000.

Labour should be holding Clegg and Cable to the principle that any effort should "socialise the profit" and ensure that the Government (in serious need finance-wise) does not sell the family silver off cheap.

If after investing £37bn to save banks there is nothing but a continuing litany of appalling behaviour when it comes to bonuses, Libor, bank charges, and lending—not to mention the lack of visible reform— then George and David will need to be clear about what they’ve achieved in finishing what Gordon and Alistair needed to start. 

Photograph: Getty Images.

V M C Rozario is a pseudonymous former housing professional and a member of Generation Rent.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Emily Thornberry heckled by Labour MPs as tensions over Trident erupt

Shadow defence secretary's performance at PLP meeting described as "risible" and "cringeworthy". 

"There's no point trying to shout me down" shadow defence secretary Emily Thornberry declared midway through tonight's Parliamentary Labour Party meeting. Even by recent standards, the 70-minute gathering was remarkably fractious (with PLP chair John Cryer at one point threatening to halt it). Addressing MPs and peers for the first time since replacing Maria Eagle, Thornberry's performance did nothing to reassure Trident supporters. 

The Islington South MP, who voted against renewal in 2007, said that the defence review would be "wide-ranging" and did not take a position on the nuclear question (though she emphasised it was right to "question" renewal). She vowed to listen to colleagues as well as taking "expert advice" and promised to soon visit the Barrow construction site. But MPs' anger was remorseless. Former shadow defence minister Kevan Jones was one of the first to emerge from Committee Room 14. "Waffly and incoherent, cringeworthy" was his verdict. Another Labour MP told me: "Risible. Appalling. She compared Trident to patrolling the skies with spitfires ... It was embarrassing." A party source said afterwards that Thornberry's "spitfire" remark was merely an observation on changing technology. 

"She was talking originally in that whole section about drones. She'd been talking to some people about drones and it was apparent that it was absolutely possible, with improving technology, that large submarines could easily be tracked, detected and attacked by drones. She said it is a question of keeping your eye on new technology ... We don't have the spitfires of the 21st century but we do have some quite old planes, Tornadoes, but they've been updated with modern technology and modern weaponry." 

Former first sea lord and security minister Alan West complained, however, that she had failed to understand how nuclear submarines worked. "Physics, basic physics!" he cried as he left. Asked how the meeting went, Neil Kinnock, who as leader reversed Labour's unilateralist position in 1989, simply let out a belly laugh. Thornberry herself stoically insisted that it went "alright". But a shadow minister told me: "Emily just evidently hadn't put in the work required to be able to credibly address the PLP - totally humiliated. Not by the noise of the hecklers but by the silence of any defenders, no one speaking up for her." 

Labour has long awaited the Europe split currently unfolding among the Tories. But its divide on Trident is far worse. The majority of its MPs are opposed to unilateral disarmament and just seven of the shadow cabinet's 31 members share Jeremy Corbyn's position. While Labour MPs will be given a free vote when the Commons votes on Trident renewal later this year (a fait accompli), the real battle is to determine the party's manifesto stance. 

Thornberry will tomorrow address the shadow cabinet and, for the first time this year, Corbyn will attend the next PLP meeting on 22 February. Both will have to contend with a divide which appears unbridgeable. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.